INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 - by Mike Powell
BRIAN ENO: ANOTHER GREEN WORLD
In July 1975, Brian Eno found himself a few days and several thousand dollars into a studio booking with nearly nothing to show for it.
It wasn't that he had too few ideas, but too many. His first two solo albums, Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), had reimagined glam rock as sound sculpture and established Eno not just as a practitioner of pop, but a theoretician of it: Someone whose music doubled as a blueprint for how music could be made. In interviews he came off as part drag courtesan and part professor emeritus, scissoring his legs in feathers and sequins while dishing about the thrills of aleatoric composition, shaping ideas few people had heard before into forms anyone could understand.
Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) bookended a year - November 1973 to November 1974 - during which Eno released three other, collaborative albums. By the end of 1975, he'd release at least two more, including something called Discreet Music, which pioneered the textured drift of what Eno later called "ambient."
At the time he conceived of Discreet Music, just a few months before he found himself panicked on the studio floor, Eno was lying in a London hospital after being hit by a taxi. The story - a modern creation myth - goes that his girlfriend brought him an album of eighteenth-century harp music, which Eno was too weak to adjust the volume on, exposing him to a blurry, impressionistic convergence of music and light rainfall outside. What if, he thought, you could make music to be heard but not actively listened to? (Or, as Eno later formulated the challenge, music "as ignorable as it is interesting.")
Days earlier, he had been lying in the back of an ambulance, holding his head together with his own bloody hands. Most people who can't turn their brains off consider it an affliction. Eno accepted it as a gift.
Eno, it should be said, had planned on going into the studio without a plan. As an art-school student, he'd fallen in love with Fluxus, a network of sculptors, musicians, performers, and thinkers who privileged the process of making work over the product. In 1968, he won a small school award for his performance of a George Brecht piece called Drip Event, whose score, in full, was "Erect containers such that water from other containers drips into them."
Eno, then twenty, added instructions for the instruments to be ground down and cast into blocks of acrylic resin, which should be given to young children. "Now," he stipulated, "the music begins." Liberated by the idea that there are no right ways, only different ones, Eno performed the piece two more times, each one unrecognisable to the last. Recording, by extension, wasn't the endpoint of composition but part of composition itself, the studio less a place of stenography than discovery.
But record companies don't buy and sell processes, they buy and sell records. If Fluxus and other performance artists defied the reduction of art to an object, Eno's ambition was to make records - concrete, immutable, physical records - that reflected process. Discreet Music's thirty-minute centrepiece, a loop of slow, feathery synthesizer tones, fades in at the beginning of the record and out at the end, as though to signal to the listener that whatever Discreet Music is - the physical record, the abstract composition - we've only witnessed part of it.
"I think I started about thirty-five pieces and some of 'em were real clutching at straws," Eno told the NME in 1976, remembering the panic of his studio session. "But it's interesting: Sometimes that kind of desperation gives rise to things that would never happen any other way."
Unsure of what else to do, Eno started giving himself instructions. Swing the microphone from the ceiling was one. Hire a trombone was another. A year earlier, he and the artist Peter Schmidt developed a set of creative constraints that codified in a deck of cards they called "Oblique Strategies." Part Fluxus exercise, part I Ching, part high-concept Tarot, the cards presented what Eno and Schmidt called "worthwhile dilemmas," scenarios artists might pose to themselves while trying to squeeze through a difficult moment.
In the spirit of the endeavour, I have just drawn three cards at random. The first says "Look at a very small object, look at its centre." The next, "Feedback recordings into an acoustic situation." The third "Imagine the music as a moving chain or caterpillar." If freedom is darkness, Oblique Strategies were a guide rail: You might not know where you were going but at least you could start to move.
The real challenge of the Strategies is having the faith to surrender to them. Throughout his forty-year career, which has included producing such marquee enterprises as U2, Talking Heads, and Coldplay, Eno has remained a voluntary amateur, someone who seems most engaged when he isn't sure what will happen next. More than humour, more than work ethic, more than his ability to see and conceptualise in ways nobody had quite seen and conceptualised before, Eno's greatest gift was his ability not only to find peace in uncertainty, but progress.
Not all Eno's collaborators shared his sense of play. The bassist Percy Jones remembers him handing out sheets of paper on which musicians were asked to write numbers, which corresponded to a specific note, which Eno wanted them to play on beat with a metronome. Phil Collins - yes, In The Air Tonight Phil Collins, then the drummer of Genesis - got about twenty beats in before stopping to throw beer cans at a bicycle across the room. Eno often came home from the studio and cried, later calling the process "almost unmitigated hell."
A couple of months later, they had a placid, reflective and unrepentantly beautiful album called Another Green World. Though usually lumped in with Eno's other early "vocal" albums - Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), and 1977's Before And After Science - only five of its fourteen songs actually have singing. While Eno could've separated the vocal tracks from the instrumental ones, as David Bowie did a couple of years later on the Eno-assisted Low, he instead dispersed them at even intervals, lily pads of song between deeper seas. The effect is like slipping into and out of sleep while friends talk in the next room.
As a child, Eno had designed houses, blueprints, sketches for fantastical and improbable places, filled with labyrinths and secret passageways. Trees grew through the middle of rooms, streams ran indoors. Another Green World captures those rooms in sound. Instead of linear, narrative structures that move from A to B to C to convey development, songs like The Big Ship start on A and linger, accumulating countermelodies, magnifying themes, staying the same and yet revealing new sides with every turn. The effect is like a two-dimensional rise off the page and then slowly fall again.
In the absence of vocals, Eno's approach, which he once called "vertical music," becomes a metaphor for intimacy: With every second that the tracks unfold, you feel like you're getting closer to the heart of something. That you never arrive doesn't matter. The joy is in the passage. I've often felt like the most famous Oblique Strategy, "repetition is a form of change," is as applicable to my best friendships or my marriage as it is to the creative process: When you see her face every day, the challenge becomes to notice something new.
Removing vocals - or at least diminishing their primacy - was Eno's way of chipping at how we identify the "human" in music. Pop is a diaristic form: A voice telling you their story, seeking identification. In Another Green World, voices ricochet around the mix like voices in a busy market (Sky Saw) or stumble in the margins, drunk and out of tune (Golden Hours). At certain points I get the strange sense that Eno is distracted by something happening at the window, just out of frame. He isn't commanding the sound around him, he's inhabiting it. He could just as well leave and everything would be the same.
Among Eno's fascinations at the time was dub reggae, which was entering an enlightenment phase. "You get an album like, say, King Tubby Meets The Upsetter, where on the back of the album you get a picture of the consoles instead of the 'stars'," he said in a 1975 interview. The image - instead of the band, pictures of their equipment - articulated Eno's developing attitude that musicians are only as important as the way they're organised and processes. (One of Eno's other big bang moments had been with Come Out, by the composer Steve Reich, a hypnotic piece in which two nearly identical tape loops of a human voice slowly fall out of phase with each other then slide back together - music whose effect depended entirely on the technology used to make it.)
The most remarkable thing about Another Green World, then, is how a stoic Englishman who showed no interest in the conventional expression of emotion managed to make something that feels so intensely personal.
Eno grew up in a small, parochial town in postwar England, the son of a third-generation mailman and a Catholic woman from Belgium. Aside from occasional streaks of melancholy, young life was steady and unremarkable. "My great debt to my parents is that they showed little interest in what I was doing," he told People in 1982. His first love was doo-wop, the lunar reverberation of echo and percussive babble of backup singers, the uncanny mix of carnal yearning and pure naiveté, of lust without sex. (Talking to the writer Lester Bangs in 1979, he called it "music from nowhere.")
The impact lingered. The daffy, nonsensical love poetry of I'll Come Running, the sha-la-las of its backup singers. Everything Merges With the Night, which opens with the plaintive address to a girl named "Rosalie," the talk of waiting all summer, all evening. You can see Eno on the corner outside her house under a halo of weird orange streetlight, picking up a pebble to toss at her window. Even some of Another Green World's instrumental tracks, particularly Becalmed and In Dark Trees, have the eerie aura of something like Elvis' Blue Moon, at once grounded and hovering three feet overhead.
Another Green World is not a happy record, nor is it sad. There are no demonstrations of personal triumph or failure, pain or elation, tension or release, desire or disappointment. The album's most dazzling passage, the guitarist Robert Fripp's solo on St. Elmo's Fire, was made under Eno's direction to replicate the display of a Wimshurst machine, a generator that creates lightning-like sparks that jump between two metal spheres. Set in the context of the song, a long walk between Eno and his companion "Brown Eyes," the solo - electricity across the sky - becomes a point of shared beauty, something neither of them expected to see but that overtakes them both. This is the nature of Another Green World's romance: Not what one person does or says for another, but the bond created between two people bearing witness to something bigger than both of them: Not love but wonder.
As someone who has frequently found themselves in states of deep peace only to have someone ask me if anything was wrong, Another Green World's apparent neutrality has always been a lifeline to me. Of course, I don't hear it as neutral - I hear it as ecstatically calm, an album that by some mysterious grace managed to climb just a few rungs higher on the tower and get a more sympathetic look at what it all means. Though self-consciously not a hippie, Eno seemed to understand that the real promise of psychedelic drugs wasn't to push one's thoughts into a new beyond but to restore them to a place they hadn't been since childhood: Drifting but absorbed, naïve but curious, moving laterally, freely, safely. In doo-wop parlance, this was his slow dance with the universe.
"I read a science fiction story a long time ago where these people are exploring space and they finally find this habitable planet," he said to the NME, reflecting on the album's title. "And it turns out to be identical to Earth in every detail. And I thought that was the supreme irony: that they'd originally left to find something better and arrived in the end - which was actually the same place. Which is how I feel about myself. I'm always trying to project myself at a tangent and always seem eventually to arrive back at the same place." In other words, here.